This Sunday, the Masterworks Chorale performs Lukas Foss’s “Behold! I Build an House,” composed for the March 1950 dedication of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. The piece, a setting of texts from the second book of Chronicles concerning the commissioning and consecration of the temple in Jerusalem, is an artifact of Boston architectural history. It also marked a generational changing of the Bostonian musical guard.
The university purchased 15 acres along the Charles River in 1920, hiring architect Ralph Adams Cram to produce a master plan for the new campus. Cram was the high priest of collegiate Gothic, exemplified in his designs for Princeton, Rice University, and, eventually, Marsh Chapel: thoroughly medieval, vault-and-buttress-based spaces with a touch of Art Deco streamlining. Construction of the new chapel, however, was delayed by the Great Depression and World War II; BU President Daniel L. Marsh ended up spending the bulk of his term shepherding the project. By the time of the chapel’s dedication, Cram had been dead for eight years.
Foss’s was not the only piece commissioned for the occasion. Everett Titcomb’s “Dedication,” setting much the same text that Foss did, was, perhaps, the more expected contribution. Titcomb was a Boston church music institution. A Massachusetts native, Titcomb had been organist and choirmaster at St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street since 1910. He and Cram had been close; Cram had sang in Titcomb’s choir, and the two had become friends, united by a skepticism of modernism and a love of high Anglican pomp and rectitude. (The skepticism was there from the start: at the age of 20, Titcomb had thrown away a “Magnificat” setting after being told that it sounded a little like Puccini.)
Foss, though, was thoroughly modern. Born in Berlin in 1922, he had emigrated, first to Paris, and then, in 1937, to the United States. Summers of study with Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood had led to Foss’s appointment as the BSO’s pianist; the 1944 premiere of his cantata “The Prairie” had established Foss as a composer to watch, combining the American neo-classicism of musicians like Aaron Copland and Roy Harris with touches of complex expressionism derived from the European avant-garde. Titcomb’s style was polished and stately; Foss’s, polyglot and brash. The bright, dissonant organ chords and quietly restless tangle of counterpoint that open “Behold! I Build an House” signal the forthright, teeming temple Foss imagined.
BEHOLD! I BUILD AN HOUSE
Presented by the Masterworks Chorale. Conducted by Kevin Leong. Also featuring music by Randall Thompson and Ernest Bloch. March 1, 3 p.m. Old South Church. $20-$50, 617-858-6785; masterworkschorale.org.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.